As the specter of anthrax spread up the Eastern seaboard from Florida to New York, Americans began an inevitable round of speculation on the source of this “other shoe.” And while Osama bin Laden and his supposed allies were considered early on as the likely suspects, government officials are backing off that assumption. Increasingly, experts on terror and the radical fringe say they expect to find the perpetrators here at home. They contend that the very use of anthrax as terror weapon, whether real or hoax, is a trademark of the American far right.
“You can’t look at this with blinders on and say it has to be Islam,” said Juliette Kayyem, executive director of the Executive Session on Domestic Terrorism and Preparedness study at Harvard, in a telephone interview with the Weekly. “Abortion clinics and left-leaning groups have been the targets of American bio-terror enterprise for years. The events of the 11th may have only opened the doors. As soon as I heard the word anthrax, that’s what I thought of.”
For most Americans, of course, bin Laden was the first name to come to mind. Then the anthrax was deemed to be “weapons grade,” which could come only from a state capable of such manufactures, and V.P. Dick Cheney trundled out the name of Saddam Hussein. But that assumption has been challenged on two fronts. According to Scott Ritter, a former U.N. weapons inspector, Iraq is incapable of brewing up high-grade batches of anthrax. “By 1998, we were able to establish in no uncertain terms that Iraq had no capability of producing biological weapons,” Ritter recently told the BBC. “We covered Iraq up and down and all around, every square inch, and there was nothing there.”
And experts dispute the idea that only a state-sponsored lab would have the technology to manufacture easily delivered, weapons-grade anthrax. Writing in the October 17 New Republic, anthropologist Wendy Orent, an expert on biological diseases, said the anthrax that has shown up so far “isn’t made by amateurs,” but said, “It is possible these are the actions of a group using a small laboratory.”
Law-enforcement officials are making the same point. Sandra Carroll, a special agent at the FBI office in Newark, New Jersey, said last week, “Tests are showing that it could be locally produced given the right circumstances.” Added FBI Director Robert Mueller, “There is no evidence to support the presumption that the anthrax attacks were the result of organized terrorism.” The FBI estimates more than five dozen labs have access to anthrax nationwide.
And while the idea of slipping toxic attack letters into the mail may seem to bear the diabolical hallmark of a bin Laden daydream, it’s becoming clear that hundreds of Americans have entertained just such thoughts. U.S. postal inspectors have logged an incredible 6,305 cases of anthrax threats in the last two weeks, so far yielding 14 arrests.
The most bizarre of those involved L.A. Fire Department Captain Christopher Cooper, 43, who served with a crisis-intervention team at the World Trade Center. Captain Cooper, from Encino, was charged in federal court last week with mailing a threatening letter to a San Bernardino law firm that had represented his ex-wife during their divorce. According to a criminal complaint, the letter contained a check and a suspicious brown powder, and was inscribed with the words “Choke on it.” The law offices were evacuated while authorities made sure the powder was not anthrax. Captain Cooper is free on $40,000 bail pending a court hearing on November 9, said Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Some of the threats have been more political, including hundreds mailed to Planned Parenthood and the Feminist Majority Foundation. None of the letters contained anthrax, said Anne Glazier, national director of clinic security for Planned Parenthood. The organization, she said, has experienced similar threats in the past, but never on such a scale: “We had 30 hoax letters in all of 2000, and 171 since the 15th of October. The text is basically ‘There is anthrax in the letter, we are going to kill you,’ signed ‘Army of God, Virginia Dare chapter,’” Glazier noted. “It has to be a massive operation.”
If it’s not al Qaeda behind the attacks, the question arises, what kind of American would do this to a fellow American?
Clinton Van Zandt, a retired agent from the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit, who served as a government negotiator at Waco, and who successfully profiled Timothy McVeigh within hours of the Oklahoma City bombing, believes the authors of these anthrax-o-grams could be bio-Unabombers — that is, fringe activists. “It could very well be that in the wake of 9/11, an opportunistic type or types think, ‘Hey, if I go after that one person, they’ll know it’s me.’ So they send out a bunch of anthrax letters with only one target in mind.”
In other words, a nut with a grudge.
Which leaves plenty of likely candidates. Many supposedly patriotic types were figuratively dancing in the streets in the wake of 9/11. The Southern Poverty Law Center collated some of the more colorful observations from Web pages and e-mail groups. Billy Roper, a coordinator with the National Alliance, a large neo-Nazi group, had this to say: “The enemy of our enemy is, for now at least, our friends. We may not want them marrying our daughters . . . But anyone who is willing to drive a plane into a building to kill Jews is all right by me. I wish our members had half as much testicular fortitude.”
Martin Linstedt, “director of political warfare” for the 7th Missouri Militia, ranted in the same vein: “I’ve been wishing that the A-rabs had stolen a couple hundred jumbo-jets full of Talmudic Khazar-mamzers, criminal regimist whiggers, niggers, gooks, beaners, etc. and crashed them all into the Supreme Kort, CON-gress-kapital J Edgar Hoover FBI Building, all 50 state capitals [sic] — A DAMNED GOOD START!”
Someone’s lost that lovin’ feelin’, I guess.
The fact is, the far right in America is consistently underestimated as a potent force. David Neiwert, a former MSNBC analyst and author of the 1999 book In God’s Country: The Patriot Movement in the Pacific Northwest, believes the Department of Justice and its head, John Ashcroft, simply don’t understand domestic terror, possibly because they’d prefer not to know. “When Ashcroft says the far right isn’t organized, it shows how little he knows about it,” said Neiwert. The fringe right “look to William Pierce, the author of The Turner Diaries, say, but not for leadership — more as an information clearinghouse.”
Besides, the right wing has a historical fascination with bio-terror, and anthrax in particular. Lancaster, Ohio, microbiologist Larry Wayne Harris serves as a case in point. Harris was arrested in 1998 in Henderson, Nevada, and charged with carrying enough anthrax to “wipe out” Las Vegas. Three years before that, Harris was arrested at his home with three vials of freeze-dried Yersinia pestis, an organism that causes bubonic plague. During that arrest, Ohio police discovered a certificate stating that Harris was a lieutenant in the Aryan Nations, a white-separatist organization founded in prisons and based in Hayden Lake, Idaho.
Terror expert Neiwert points out that the small scale of the anthrax campaign so far seems tailored to the “leaderless resistance” concept espoused by many radical-right organizations. “The concept of which is not unlike [that of] al Qaeda — the idea of individual cells,” Neiwert said. “There could be six or seven people in a terrorist cell with the person who sent it not being the person that made and milled the anthrax itself.”
If that’s the case, then the domestic war on terror could be headed down the same path as the international search for bin Laden — in the words of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, “It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack.”